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MISSOULA — As electoral battles were waged across Montana this summer, opponents of a measure to prohibit local governments from regulating concealed carry of firearms kept anticipating a huge fight of their own. Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said her organization expected major messaging from gun rights groups and millions in spending by the National Rifle Association. But pitched debate over Legislative Referendum 130 never fully materialized.

“We saw almost no campaigning for LR-130 until the very last bit,” Curtis said. “We were constantly surprised that it seemed to be flying under the radar until just right before the election, until people started voting essentially, when we started to see some messaging on it and some campaigning for it. But it wasn’t the big public fight that we had anticipated.”

In an election year characterized by Republican landslides, Montana voters approved the measure Nov. 3 by a comparatively narrow margin of 51% to 49%. Proponents of LR-130 framed the issue in constitutional terms, with Montana Shooting Sports Association President Gary Marbut arguing that the right to bear arms is “useless if any city or county may concoct and enforce local gun control.” Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, who sponsored the bill to place LR-130 on the ballot in the 2019 Legislature, did not return messages seeking comment, but he told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in response to the Election Day victory that the referendum “protects us from entities in the future enacting stricter gun laws than exist at the state level.”

For Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg, however, the passage of LR-130 enacts “the most extreme advancement of concealed carry rights that the state has ever seen.” Von Lossberg was the sponsor of a 2016 Missoula city ordinance that expanded background checks on local gun sales. That ordinance inflamed gun rights advocates, sparking a legal battle that ended with the Montana Supreme Court striking down the law.

LR-130 now renders moot another Missoula city ordinance, passed in 2018, prohibiting the carrying of firearms at polling locations and in developed city parks. Von Lossberg notes that particular law was in part a codification of long-practiced prohibitions made at the behest of the Missoula County attorney’s office, and in part a response to incidents of intimidation reported at polling stations located in non-publicly owned buildings. The vote on that ordinance was accompanied by considerable debate and compromise, he said.

“When you walk in those doors, it’s posted that there’s a local [Helena] city ordinance that you can’t carry firearms into the Capitol. That no longer will be the case.”

Tim Burton, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns

“We had what was a very thoughtful, deliberative legislative discussion around the difference between developed parks that have like playground equipment and stuff … versus an open space area” owned by the city, von Lossberg said. “In my mind, the vast majority of the community gets that.”

In the wake of LR-130’s passage, the Missoula City Council faces the task of bringing such local laws into compliance with LR-130. It’s not alone. Tim Burton, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said he doesn’t have an exact number for local governments with local firearms laws, but he estimated that the figure is in the dozens. By way of example, he cited a sign affixed inside the door of the state Capitol building.

“When you walk in those doors, it’s posted that there’s a local [Helena] city ordinance that you can’t carry firearms into the Capitol,” Burton said. “That no longer will be the case.”

Burton’s group opposed LR-130 alongside MFPE, the Montana School Boards Association, the Montana Human Rights Network and others. That coalition challenged the referendum’s language as misleading in a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court last year. The challenge was unsuccessful. The post-election job before the Montana League of Cities and Towns, Burton said, is to offer guidance to local governments on how to comply with LR-130. He anticipates considerable uncertainty.

“I think the confusion exists on what’s a local government unit,” Burton said. “How does it affect all local government units, counties, cities, schools? Where does the authority begin and end?”

Curtis said MFPE’s interest in fighting the measure was in ensuring the safety of the public employees the union represents. The organization has also long been a proponent of local decision-making authority for school boards and other public institutions. MFPE is “finished with this for now,” she added, but she wonders if voters really understand what they approved.

“I don’t think that Montanans know that they were voting to give up their own local control,” Curtis said. “I don’t think that they would have done that.”

Support for LR-130 was geographically widespread in Montana, according to election results recorded by the Secretary of State’s office. The measure passed by wide margins in many rural counties, as well as in Flathead, Cascade and Yellowstone counties. The rural results did contain one exception: Fallon County voted down LR-130 by 37 votes. In the end, only seven counties voted against LR-130 including Missoula, Gallatin and Lewis and Clark. 

Von Lossberg has a hard time containing his frustration over the way LR-130 played out. He believes his Missoula constituents are less safe today than they were before Nov. 3, and argues that the referendum cuts against the historical grain of local government control in Montana.

“The hypocrisy of ranting that the government closest to the people is the best government, blah blah blah, and then the misrepresentations of what we had actually done and implemented, it’s just — oh, I’ve got to be careful — that kind of legislative policymaking is not in the interests of the safety of my constituents,” von Lossberg said. 

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...